mike runs away from home

A little boy becomes a little man.

Month: May, 2012

Summing up

To start with, a couple of lists:

Trip statistics:

Number of full weeks: 11

Total number of miles run: 924

Average number of miles per week: 84

Proportion of distance home run: 25%

Books read waiting for red blood cells to multiply: 13


A few things I’ve seen here that I probably won’t see back in England:

 – A sheep being worn as a backpack. This is achieved by draping the sheep’s front legs over your shoulders and tying them its hind legs, which are around your waist. My favourite exponent of this technique was also riding a bike. The sheep didn’t actually seem too concerned by the arrangement.

 – Strangers who are dining alone in restaurants being invited to join other groups. This is often very insistent – people here seem slightly offended by people eating alone. When I went out for dinner with Mersha, Gudisa and Anthony on Thursday evening, Mersha invited a woman to join us and then proceeded to feed her mouthfuls of injera (from his hand) across the table. Apparently this is completely normal here.

 – The driver of a minibus stopping for five minutes to continue to flirt with a female passenger who wanted to get out, in spite of the protests of other passengers. Eventually he locked the door and told her she couldn’t leave until he had her phone number. Luckily, she seemed to think this was charming and complied, so we were able to continue our journey!

 – Red wine mixed in equal parts with coca cola. As I’m assuming this must be necessary to make Ethiopian wine drinkable, I haven’t bothered to taste it on its own.

 – “Spriss”. This literally means ‘mixture’, and refers to a shot of espresso in a cup of tea. Richard actually quite liked it when he was here.

 – Exclusively positive heckling from members of the public whilst running – as mentioned before, ‘izo ambessa’ is a personal favourite, but ‘Haile! Haile!’ or ‘appreciate boy!’ are still better than the singularly unimaginative ‘run Forest run!’ that you get in England.


‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ – A few reasons why I run, as I don’t think I’ve explained this in any other posts:

 – Running is one of the only activities with which you can reach 95% of your potential by investing only two hours a day – it’s good to have something that you know you are doing about as well as you can do it.

 – I’m a better person to be around when I’ve been for a run. I wouldn’t want to spend too much time with me if I’d not been running for a couple of days.

 – Thinking time. When I’m running my mind tends to work differently – instead of thinking of practical things, it usually wanders in a way similar to during meditation or just before sleeping. On top of this, running seems to oxygenate the brain, and I always feel more alert for a couple of hours afterwards.

 – Stress relief. I’ve managed to avoid living a particularly stressful life for 24 years, but whenever I do feel a bit on edge, running sorts it out. I think it was Haile who said he thought the world’s mental health would be better if everyone spent half an hour a day running, and I’m sure he’s right.

 – Running is the best way of exploring new places. Whenever I visit a city in Europe, I feel like I get a better impression of the place by running for an hour at dawn than by walking around during the day – and I probably cover more ground that way too.

 – Apart from boxing (the other sport that embodies an adrenal reaction) sport doesn’t get any simpler. It’s not governed by money and facilities (like cycling, rowing or any of the other sports that Britain does well in). This means that it is far more accessible and egalitarian than most other sports – a good thing in spite of the fact that it makes it extremely difficult to succeed in!

My last really hard session of the trip was a split 8km tempo run, with a 5km followed by a 3km on a flat road in Sabata. Apparently they’ve succeeded in turning me into a proper Habesha runner as I now share the other runners’ aversion to running on the road. I’m probably going to have to get used to it again when I get back to England, but having spent such a lot of my time running in forests and on grassland, the road feels very unforgiving, and my legs felt like they’d taken quite a hammering from the session. I managed to run 16.01 for the 5km, though, at the end of a hard week’s training. Mersha says this will make running 15 minutes for the first 5km of a 10km race at sea-level feel comfortable – I’ll be testing his hypothesis in six days time.

My last two weeks of training:

Sunday May 6th 12 miles steady.

Monday May 7th AM – 8 miles steady. PM – 4 miles. Hail storm.

Tuesday May 8th AM – 12 x 90 seconds with 90 seconds recovery. PM – 5 miles on the treadmill.

Wednesday May 9th AM – 8 miles steady. PM – 5 miles on the treadmill.

Thursday May 10th AM – 8 miles of fartlek. Tired.  PM – 6 miles steady. Felt good.

Friday May 11th AM – 8 miles easy. PM – 5 miles steady.

Saturday May 12th AM – 15 x 220m with 40 seconds recovery. PM – 6 miles.

Total – 88 miles.

Sunday May 13th 13 miles steady.

Monday May 14th AM – 8 miles easy. PM – 4 miles easy.

Tuesday May 15th AM – 5 sets of 3 minutes hard, 1 minute recovery, 1 minute hard with 2 minutes between sets. PM – 4.5 miles on the treadmill with Haile!

Wednesday May 16th AM – 8 miles steady. PM – 4.5 miles steady.

Thursday May 17th AM – 4 sets of 300m, 500m with 3 minutes between each rep on the track. PM – 4.5 miles on the treadmill.

Friday May 18th AM – 8 miles steady. PM – 4 miles steady.

Saturday May 19th AM – 5 km hard in 16.01, 7 minutes recovery, 3km in 9.40. PM – 4 miles steady.

Total – 84 miles.


Jogging back to Mersha for feedback between reps.

Following the track session I did last week, he told me that he wants me to come back to Ethiopia for six months to train, and to live with him so that he can make sure I rest ‘properly’ and eat like an athlete. He was unimpressed when I told him that I thought I probably had a few other things I needed to do besides run. He reckons six months is the minimum amount of time needed to make an ‘extraordinary improvement’. I should, he said, could come back and train with ‘this group’ (he gestured towards the group he was timing after I’d finished, which included Tariku Bekele and Imane Merga). That would certainly represent the ‘extraordinary’ improvement he was talking about! Whilst I appreciate his enthusiasm I don’t think any amount of intensity on the part of the coach could get me running as quick as they were, as they were running 3km reps at altitude fast enough to win BMC races in the UK. When I explained this to him, he just sighed and asked me to send the British runners to Ethiopia. It’s been good to constantly have the improvements I’ve been making put into perspective by the other runners around here – going back to Maiden Castle this will be done for me by Max (my coach) but not as directly. In Durham, the comparison tends to have a temporal element – to the runners from Gateshead Harriers who used to train there and whose times Max sometimes even has written down for comparison.

There will be a couple more blog posts after my return home about what the come down is like after spending three months at 2,400m. Hope everyone’s enjoyed the blog!









First things fi…

First things first…


Luckily, the photo isn’t at a high enough resolution to read the respective speeds on the treadmill dials, but I think the relative amounts of blurring of our legs gives away the fact that he’s running a bit faster than I am!

Last time I met Haile, it was a slightly rushed affair, as we were trying to get vests signed without interrupting his training too much. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to spend the £2 it costs to train in his gym, and actually train alongside him. Luckily, Anthony (the latest farenji visitor to the camp) suggested it, and I actually got to run alongside the great man for twenty minutes. I must thank modern technology for this, as I doubt I could have stayed with him (he was running at 19.7 km/h) for that long without our being on treadmills! I was a bit surprised that he didn’t run for longer, but then he is racing Patrick Makau at the weekend in Manchester, so perhaps he was saving himself for that. I think, in fact, that he spent less time in the gym than anyone else – after the treadmill he did a few weights, cycled for five minutes and marched out. I suspect his business interests occupy most of his time now, as he owns the whole of the six-storey building which houses the gym, is the sole importer of Hyundai cars to Ethiopia, and set up the first cinema in Addis amongst numerous other developments. He seems to be the exception to the rule that all the athletes here spend their time resting in between training sessions!


The Ethiopian National Stadium, venue for the National Championships.

Last weekend saw the Ethiopian National Championships, and we finally managed to find out the time of the 10,000m. Unfortunately, I forgot to apply my usual rule of adding two hours to any time you are told here, and both Anthony and I got pretty sunburned as a result. Whilst this was a minor irritation for us, it must have been a major one for the runners, who had to run in the heat of the day instead of the cool of the morning. It didn’t stop them taking off at breakneck speed though, and by the half way point there were more runners in the athletes’ tent than there were left on the track. Unlike in the UK, where people have an idea of what sort of time they will run and pace themselves accordingly in order to be able to finish, there is no shame in dropping out of a race here. The crowd is of the same opinion as the athletes – if you’re not going to win, you might as well stop. The race was eventually won in a shade over twenty-nine minutes, with a last lap of fifty-eight seconds, and those that had remained in the race (around twenty runners) all finished in less than thirty minutes. The fact that these included one athlete wearing a polo shirt, football shorts and a pair of pink sandals should probably have put those who failed to finish to shame!

The Olympic trials for Ethiopian 10,000m runners will be held in Hengelo, with the Kenyan trials at the Prefontaine Classic in America. Whilst there is a pre-trial trial in Kenya, to select those who will travel to the States, the winner of the Ethiopian National Championships probably won’t be able to compete in his Olympic trial. All of the well-established athletes – those with agents capable of sending them to big races at sea-level – are exempt from running the National Championships, so that it turns into a kind of B race (albeit with a winning time equivalent to a twenty-seven minute 10km at sea-level!) The fact that the National Champion doesn’t even get a chance to run in the Olympics here puts into perspective how difficult it is to make the Ethiopian team. Gudisa pointed out that most of those who competed in the race we watched could run what he calls the ‘farenji’ qualifying time, but that they don’t stand a chance with the more stringent ‘habesha’ (Ethiopian) times demanded by the federation here.

I’ve now got one week to go before I fly back to the UK. I’ll be training hard until Saturday, before having an easier week to get ready for the London 10km. I’ve had 11 weeks of good, consistent training, but I haven’t raced at all whilst I’ve been here. Hopefully an easier week will put a little bit of zip back into my legs, and I’ll be able to remember how to race back at home!

Yesterday I wen…

Yesterday I went running in the most severe storm I’ve ever seen. The belg rains seemed to have finished, so I thought that the dark clouds could only be holding the remnants of what the rainy season had to offer. When people warned me on my way out that ‘rain is coming’ I assured them that I did most of my training in Scotland and had therefore had plenty of experience of rain. What I lacked experience of, though, was running in rain that turns the whole road into a river to the extent where all the traffic has to stop. I managed to keep going for about twenty-five minutes, past people sheltering in buildings and shouting encouragement. ‘Izo ambessa’ is definitely my favourite form of encouragement – it means ‘keep going, lion.’ When the rain turned into hailstones so big I thought they were going to leave bruises – and which prevented me from seeing where I was going – I decided that enough was enough, and managed to shelter in the tin house of one of the construction site guards. We sat shivering and watching the storm for about twenty minutes as hailstones pinballed through the door, commenting on the severity of the storm in English and Amharic and agreeing with each other in spite of not being entirely sure what the other was saying, until it abated enough for me to get home. I hope the rainy season disappears for good soon, because storms like this also have a tendency to cut off the electricity for a couple of days. I’m back to playing the game of danger treadmill in the evenings, when I run for about forty-five minutes hoping a power cut isn’t going to send me flying!


The sky before I went running. Perhaps I should have realised a storm was coming…

On Tuesday morning we trained in Sululta, a flat grassy plain where lots of the top athletes run, and we chatted to a big group of runners when they’d finished their session. One of the things I’ve noticed is that apart from the very top runners, everyone here runs in old racing flats, donated from runners abroad. If you go to running shops here, you realise that all of the new shoes have been sold to the shop by athletes who get them from agents or shoe companies. A lot of them are even signed by the runners, and the clothing is sold in terms of which year it came out and which athlete it was sent to. The runners here are able to run in shoes that were designed to be lightweight and not particularly supportive in the first place, and which have then been worn by someone else until what little cushioning they had has disappeared, without seeming to ever get injured. I imagine this would probably be of interest to ‘bare-foot running’ enthusiasts in England. For the uninitiated, there has been a theory going round for the last couple of years (mainly due to a book called ‘Born to Run’ by a Men’s Health journalist) which says that running in plush, cushioned running shoes causes injuries by stopping the foot from working naturally and encouraging people to strike the ground with their heel.


A typical pair of trainers in Bekoji, which have become a lot more ‘minimal’ than when they started! For anyone in Edinburgh, I’m going to be collecting up used running shoes in Run 4 It and sending them to Bekoji when I get back.

Most proponents of bare-foot running look to statistics about American distance runners back in the ‘70s, when everyone ran in similar shoes to those worn by Ethiopians now – low profile with little cushioning – and there were less injuries. What people fail to remember, though, is that – again like Ethiopia today – people who ran were all runners, in the sense that they took running seriously and trained hard. If you look at results from races back then you notice that there were far fewer participants, but that in a 10-mile race there wouldn’t be many people running slower than 60 minutes. More cushioned shoes came as a response to people who weren’t necessarily particularly athletic, or who weighed more than about 10 stone, starting to run in the ‘jogging boom’. You can say what you like about Nike, but they’re pretty good at reacting to the market. It takes a certain kind of runner to be able to run in extremely lightweight shoes. If you watch an Ethiopian run in Sululta in running shoes, and then watch a thirteen-stone Scot (as I’ve done many times) hobble along the canal in Edinburgh with an expensive pair of ‘minimal’ gloves on their feet, it’ll be pretty clear which one looks the most ‘natural.’

Hopefully over the next three days I’ll be watching a bit of the National Athletics Championships here, although it’s proving pretty difficult to find out when the events are actually taking place. Mersha coaches a few athletes who are running in the 10,000m, and he seems to think the race is on Saturday morning, but when we called the athletes themselves they didn’t know, and according to Binyem, who’s in charge of the Stadium, the race is scheduled for today. I can’t imagine preparing for a championship race (especially one which is likely to be won in 28 minutes at 2,400m above sea-level!) without knowing when the race is actually going to happen. I suppose the athletes’ lack of concern shows that they’re relaxed, at least. If I manage to actually get to the Stadium at the right time for a race, I’ll try to get some photos and videos up on the blog.

I think last week was the biggest training week, in terms of overall mileage, I’ve ever done. As most of the running here is off-road, and slightly slower than at sea level, it’s probably quite a good time to experiment with running slightly more volume, and so far I feel fine. As I’m only working three days a week I also get to sleep during the day quite a lot, which must help with coping with the training! I’ve got two weeks of training left now before I head to London to run the British 10km Championships. Gudisa and Mersha have started talking about the race a lot – I think they’re more excited about it than I am. My favourite piece of advice from Gudisa is ‘When you run the race, just remember that you will not die. So you have to run really very hard!’ Mersha is getting more and more obsessed with me recovering between training – he wants me to stop working for the last two weeks of my trip and to spend all of my time between training sessions asleep. He keeps repeating the mantra ‘no recovery, no improvement.’ He’s right, of course, but there are limits to how much rest you can deal with. When I told him I wanted to run as close to 30 minutes as possible, he took me aside and quietly told me that I ‘must’ run 29 minutes. He told me so solemnly I almost believed it was possible, if only to avoid his disappointment, although it seems a bit of a major jump from my previous best. My favourite prediction for what it’ll be like to race back at sea level, though, comes from an old Rasta from the community called ‘Jamaica’ in Shashemani, who I met in a café the other day. He reckoned that ‘when you go home, man, breathin’ gon’ be easy. You gon’ mash up that competition man.’ From Richard’s experience (he was here training with me at the beginning of the trip), the first race after going back wasn’t as good as the second, after another week at sea level. That would suit me fine, as I’d love to run really well at the Blaydon race on the 9th of June. There aren’t many races with accompanying songs that are sung by 50,000 people every Saturday. Last week’s training is below:

Sunday April 29th 14 miles easy.

Monday April 30th AM – 9 miles easy. PM – 5 miles steady.

Tuesday May 1st AM – 14 x 1 minute with 2 minutes recovery.

Wednesday May 2nd AM – 8.5 miles easy. PM – 6.5 miles steady. Felt really good.

Thursday May 3rd AM – 2 sets of 3 x 3 minutes in Sendafa, followed by 10 minutes of random sprinting. PM – 5.5 miles steady.

Friday May 4th AM – 7 miles easy. PM – 6 miles steady. Tired!

Saturday May 5th AM – 20 minutes of continuous hill sprints. PM – 6 miles steady.

Total – 93 miles.


Sendafa is a pretty popular place to sell milk – it is seen as an important ingredient for recovering from training, so most of the athletes will stop to buy some on their way home, and given Mersha’s obsession with me being well rested, I’m usually forced to drink at least a litre after each session.

On Wednesday ni…

On Wednesday night I went to a screening of ‘The Town of Runners’ with Gudisa and Edau, another runner in our training group who is from Bekoji, where the film is set. The film follows two girls as they try to make it as athletes, as well as giving a profile of coach Sentayu and a great impression of the town itself. The film is narrated by Biruk, who we met whilst we were in Bekoji, from his kiosk on the town’s ‘main’ (only) street. His commentary on life in the town, and on the gradual modernisation it is undergoing at the hands of the Chinese, is fantastic. When a mobile phone mast is built next to his kiosk he looks up at it wryly and says ‘I don’t think it will catch on.’ This was two years ago. Today, pretty much everyone in Ethiopia has a mobile, and I saw Biruk fiddling with his at the film screening on Wednesday.

Coach Sentayu comments at one stage in the film that it is impossible to tell which of the runners will turn out to be the best at a young age. Unfortunately, it seems to have turned out that the two he picked out as the most promising as thirteen year olds – the stars of the film – have struggled since. Like a lot of the young athletes who graduate from the coach’s group to the regional development camps, both were forced to drop out of school to pursue a running career that will only be successful for the exceptional few. The camps, unveiled with great fanfare a couple of years ago, turn out to be hugely disappointing. The girls are sent to opposite sides of the country, and faced with sharing unfurnished rooms with 5 or six other girls and, at times, having to go hungry because of dwindling food budgets. If you add to this the fact that the residents of the towns to which they are sent react with bitterness – one comments that the town could have spent the money on a road instead of an athletics camp – you realise that the romantic vision of young Ethiopians going straight from running to school through sun-streaked fields to Olympic glory is a far cry from the truth.

The other film I’ve seen so far at the festival is a documentary called ‘Salam Rugby’, about young Muslim women trying to play rugby in defiance of Ahmedinjad’s repressive regime in Iran. In spite of all of Seb Coe’s insistences to the contrary, and high-quality facilities all over the country, sports participation is still in sharp decline in Britain. It’s a shame that young people seem to lack the drive that those faced with far greater difficulties have in abundance. Perhaps having the extra obstacles actually acts as a catalyst to success. I thought it was funny that in ‘Town of Runners’, the only non-Amharic voices were Geordie ones – Steve Cram and Brendan Foster commenting on the clips of all the Bekoji-born World and Olympic champions on their way to glory. I’m not about to compare the hardship of living in the North East with growing up in a training camp in rural Ethiopia, but perhaps it had something to do with the work ethic all the great runners that the North East has produced have shown.

I’m trying to get as close to 100 miles for this week as possible – mainly due to the fact that having basically written that the reason for the decline in the standard of British distance running was the lack of hard training I should probably walk the walk (or run the run). As of Friday morning, I can observe that running an average of 14 miles a day is hard work, especially when training takes place at 5.30am three days a week.

I’ve also had to spend a decent portion of this week in Ethiopian Immigration trying to extend my visa. The first day I queued from 9.30 until 11.30 to be told that the only woman that works in the office was going for a two-hour lunch break. At this point I’d had enough. The second day I made it to the front of this first queue to be told to ‘go to number 77’, which sounded like some sort of Kafkaesque side-chamber but turned out to be another queue. Being British, I like queuing. There are plenty of aspects of British culture that I don’t like, but queuing seems to be the fairest way of dealing with situations where everyone thinks their time is more valuable than anyone else’s. Ironically (given my experience of visa offices in India), the only other queue-enthusiast in the office was an Indian guy, who asked me to save his place whilst he stood in front of the woman warding off anyone who tried to walk straight to the front. When I managed to get to the front of the ‘77’ queue, I was told I needed a letter of recommendation from the Climate Change Forum. Four hours well wasted – I’ll be back on Monday. At least as a foreigner I escaped the worst of the bureaucracy – if you’re Ethiopian and want to apply for a passport it involves a four day queue to obtain an appointment for five months time. A thriving portion of the Ethiopian economy seems to be made up of professional queuers operating outside immigration. Perhaps it’s the ideal job for an Englishman.

Apart from my attempt to run 100 miles this week leading to general tiredness, training is going better than at any other point of my trip. I’m no longer aware of being at altitude at all, and I’m able to run more or less the pace I would run at sea level. The other runners in the group are running a half-marathon this week, and as a sign of things getting serious before the race, coach Mersha insisted that we all stop at a farm on the way back from training today to drink fresh-from-the-cow milk. I managed to persuade him that it was probably safer if I didn’t, and Gudisa and I were allowed to take ours home. We boiled it with some ‘wush-wush’ (go-faster) tea and loads of sugar to make a kind of high-energy chai, which Gudisa says the Kenyans drank a lot of when he was there. Hopefully it’ll have the effect Mersha wants it to. He was quite keen on me running the race, but as it’s at 1,800m above sea level and Gudisa says if he runs an hour and four minutes he’ll be outside the top fifty, I think I’ll delay my half marathon debut to the Great North Run in September.

The belg rains, which have turned our forest into a bit of a mud bath, have finally stopped. This is a big boost to injury prevention, both from the point of view of not slipping on the mud, and the fact that I was doing some running on the treadmill when it was raining, and this tends to be when the electricity cuts out most frequently. I don’t know what happens when you’re running on a treadmill that suddenly goes from 15km/ph to zero whilst the lights simultaneously turn off, and I’m hoping I won’t have to find out now!